Another title on the horizon for Souhegan hockey?
MANCHESTER – Good feelings.
That’s what has surrounded the Souhegan High School boys hockey program the last couple of years, culminating in this past weekend’s Division III state championship.
Joe Nutting, the Sabers’ high scoring forward who scored the game- and title-winning goal in the 5-4 win over John Stark-Hopkinton, said he knew going into this season that the Sabers would be the team to beat.
He was right.
“Yeah, at the end of last year, we knew this was really going to be our year,” Nutting said. “We had all the key components, we had our first line coming back, two really good ‘D’, a transfer ‘D’ that was great, and a great goalie.
“This was the year it was going to happen.”
In the same, more long-term approach, Sabers head coach Dan Belliveau felt good things would happen when he took the Souhegan job a couple of years ago. He was frustrated at Nashua South, and became the second Panthers coach to make the move to Souhegan and win a championship, as John Coughlin did in the previous decade. And the coach who followed Coughlin, Ed Viola, got the Sabers into the finals as well.
“You’re talking about two really good coaches, first of all,” Belliveau said. “Really good coaches that I learned a lot from watching them over the years.
“You know, when I came in here, I kind of wanted to make it our culture, our team, our way of doing things. I just felt like I’ve been there before, I felt like I kind of had an idea of what we needed to do to get there. With the help of my assistant coaches Al Hamer and Gary Moore, the three of us with our collective brains, we figured it out.
“We figured out what kind of work they needed to put in, how to go about their daily routines, and how to get to the Verizon and win the state championship.”
Senior leader Mike Hayden, who was one of, if not the, best all-around player in Division III, knows exactly what got the Sabers their title.
“I’d say our offensive production,” Hayden said. “My line – me, Matt and Joe – we were able to work it down low in the offensive zone. We just hold it down there. Our defense was solid, our second line was solid.
“Definitely our ability to keep it in the offensive zone and produce goals. That’s what helped us all year.”
That top line of Hayden, Nutting and Wilson produced mega points, over 120. They were relentless in attacking the opposition.
“They’re a very well-trained team,” John Stark-Hopkinton coach Denis Kolehmainen said. “Danny does a good job over there. We knew how they played,and they still scored on the plays from where we knew they were going to do it. That’s how good that team is.”
All season long Belliveau was preaching how deep his team was, and that he could at times use four lines, unheard of in Division III.
It showed in the final period of the final game, as the Sabers dominated puck possession in keeping a tired JSH team off the scoreboard after a wild second period.
Now the question is, what lies ahead for the Sabers? Hayden, forward Mike Belanger, goalies Connor McCall and backup Mitch Hale, along with key defenseman Vincent Silvestri, Alex Mendola and Cullen Johnson will be the graduation losses.
A key will be whether Nutting returns. Only a sophomore, one wonders if the junior level may be tempting. He progressed greatly from his freshman to his sophomore year, and became more vocal. Even on Saturday, he pleaded with Belliveau to put him out for the key faceoff that won the game.
“I definitely wanted to be on the ice for that moment,” Nutting said. “As a freshman, I was just getting used to the high school game and what it was like. Over the summer I worked on my skills and tried to get a little bigger. This year was all about the championship, and that’s what we got.”
To have him and forward Matt Wilson back would be huge, although Hayden will be sorely missed. Young players like James Wilson, a freshman this year, and goalie-in-waiting Marco Vogt will be keys. So will players like current juniors Alex Maresco (key defenseman) and Alek Medic (forward), among others.
“I’m optimistic,” Belliveau said. “The depth helps for the future, no question. We’ll see. These kids, every practice they came to work. It panned out for them down the line, which is what we wanted it to do.”
Nutting called the win “bittersweet” because it meant the season, despite finishing on top, was over.
“You never want it to end,” he said.
Perhaps for Belliveau and his Sabers, it could be just the beginning.